About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thinking about money ain't good for you, really

At least, that is one of the conclusions of a study in “neuroeconomics” authored by Vohs et al. and published in the November 17 issue of Science magazine. The study induced subjects to think about money, for example by reading aloud an essay on the topic. Compared to controls who were given essays on neutral matters, the experimental subjects were found to shift to a more individualistic attitude when it came to approaching tasks they were given. While they were in a sense more self-reliant when engaged in problem-solving, they were also significantly more self-centered.

Nothing wrong with that, would any self-respecting follower of Ayn Rand immediately suggest (or, rather, state categorically)! Well, not no fast. The commentary on Vohs and colleagues' work that appeared in Science, authored by Carole Burgoyne and Stephen Lea, reviewed several other findings emerging from psychological and cognitive studies of how we relate to money, one of which is that people who think too much about money, especially for no good reasons, tend to score high on scales of materialism, and to be less happy.

Research along similar lines clearly showed that a high score on financial success as a personal goal is almost perfectly inversely correlated with goals concerning the community. This may come as just a confirmation of common sense, but it is actually a rather big deal when science does quantify and confirm social stereotypes or common intuitions.

Interestingly, considering that money is a recent cultural invention, we seem to have different neural responses (documented by brain scanning) to situations in which money is offered as an immediate vs. a delayed reward for something we did. This in an excellent example of how our response to stimuli to which we were clearly not exposed during most of our biological evolution (e.g., money) can “borrow” on more deeply ingrained neural circuits that probably did evolve because of being favored by natural selection (e.g., recognizing the difference between immediate and delayed gratification).


  1. This seems like one more example of how psychology and neuroscience confirm what we instinctively knew. Nice post.

  2. I suppose it goes with the research indicating that people behind the iron curtain had less chance of coronary disease when living in an economically homogenous society. Although most were worse off than today, they were equally so.

    Italians immigrating to the US in the 50's build low fences around their back yard so they could chat with the neighbours, and were far better off health wise than their "integrated" children who favour privacy and tall fences - like most americans.

    Not too suprising really since we're a social lot that thrive in the company of equals.

  3. I make myself happy when I think about what I would spend money on, and then make myself happier by not spending it :)

  4. I am very often surprised about how the recognition of immediate gratification help us to learn to share, however, in the actual society the strong "selection" of this trait make more selfish, and thinking about future, unhappy human beings.


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